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I distinctly remember me and my horror-geek movie-addict pals going to see Andrew Fleming's Bad Dreams in the early part of 1988; based only on the trailers and TV ads, the thing looked to be a fairly promising combination of "Jonestown cult" fictionalization and outright Freddy Krueger plagiarism. And that's precisely what the thing still looks like today.
Combining the always-topical (and inevitably alluring) story of suicidal cult activities and the stalk & slash blueprint of Elm Street (most specifically the third Elm Street chapter), Bad Dreams starts out as seriously unoriginal and more than a little dry. And things get only marginally better before the end credits make their appearance.
The always-creepy Richard Lynch (The Sword and the Sorcerer) plays cult leader "Harris," and as the flick opens, Harris is busy pouring kerosene all over his doe-eyed young followers. One lit match leads to a sweltering variety of carnage, and the only survivor is a gal called Cynthia ... and she promptly drops into a coma for the next 13 years.
When Cindy awakens, she finds herself haunted by visions of that horrible night -- and persistently visited by the spirit of nasty ol' Harris. When Cynthia refuses to "join" Harry and his dead minions, the semi-demised villain decides to snip the lifelines on a bunch of group-therapy misfits. The murders are consistently mistaken for suicides, and Cynthia is consistently mistaken for a raving nutcase.
That's pretty much the long and the short of Bad Dreams, a pretty limp (but not terrible) little hunk of semi-forgotten late-80's slasher material. The screenplay, credited to then-first-time Andrew Fleming and then-seasoned veteran Stephen de Souza, absolutely reeks of "Hey, let's do Freddy Krueger mixed with Charles Manson!" -- and the flick never once deviates from this rather simplistic concept. (Mr. Fleming would eventually move on to much better films, like the sadly underrated Threesome and the smartly satirical Dick; De Souza would go on the pen tons of action flicks, from the first two Die Hards and Ricochet to Judge Dredd and Tomb Raider 2.)
Fleming's surprisingly fluid direction and a handful of familiar faces keep Bad Dreams just watchable enough throughout its (numerous) dry spots. As our heroine, genre fave Jennifer Rubin does some solid work, while veteran character actor Harris Yulin creates a an officious head head-shrinker you'll love to hate. If you get bored, keep an eye out for other 80s staples like Bruce Abbott (Re-Animator), Dean Cameron (Summer School), and E.G. Daily (One Dark Night). (And yes, that's Charles "Roger Rabbit" Fleischer as a goofy pharmacist.)
Upon its theatrical release, the esteemed Roger Ebert (never a huge fan of bleak and aggressive horror flicks) gave Bad Dreams a half-star rating -- while using words like "sick," "poison," and "vomitorium." By today's hard-R-horror standards, Bad Dreams isn't all that upsetting. In an effort to out-Krueger good ol' Freddy, Fleming allows his "Harris" to deliver all sorts of nasty punishment to a cast of semi-suicidal characters, but there's nothing in Bad Dreams that the horror freaks haven't seen before ... and done a whole lot better.
Video: Anchor Bay delivers this late-80's semi-obscurity in a pretty impressive anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer. There's a little soft-focus grain and some flat colors, but fans of the flick should be happy with the picture quality.
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 no-frills, but the dialogue is perfectly audible and the 'jolty' pieces of musical score come through just fine.
Good ol' Anchor Bay continues to deliver solid supplements for forgotten flicks, and they've adopted Bad Dreams from Fox to deliver it alongside some fan-friendly extras.
First up is a feature-length audio commentary with writer/director Andrew Fleming. The filmmaker approaches his debut flick with equal parts pride, humility, and self-deprecation, doling out production tidbits while poking amiable fun at the low-budgeter's shortcomings.
Then we have three featurettes:
The Making of Bad Dreams (3:42) as a time-capsule promo piece in which producer Gale Anne Hurd calls the flick "original" and "the beginning of a new sub-genre," which, with all due respect, is an outlandish claim indeed.
The Special Effects of Bad Dreams (2:10) is another late-80s promo piece in which Oscar-winning FX creator Michelle Burke shares a few tricks of the trade.
Behind the Scenes of Bad Dreams (9:12) takes us to the shoot of the rather shocking "parking lot" sequence.
You'll also find an alternate ending (9:50) and a bunch of trailers for Bad Dreams, Warning Sign, Quicksilver Highway, Freaked, and The Entity.
Like any aging horror geek worth his salt, I was looking forward to giving Bad Dreams a revisit, but the thing's just as flat, predictable, derivative, and generic as I'd remembered. Aside from a suitably intimidating performance from Richard Lynch (and a handful of semi-creative kill scenes), there's not a whole lot to recommend the thing.